“I’m curious about everything–even things that don’t interest me.” Alex Trebek
There are so many things I love about this book that I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, since it was published 7 years ago, I’m wondering how I missed it, though I did have 2 toddlers at the time, so I wasn’t exactly lounging around the house with the New York Times Book Review and steaming cappuccinos. So hopefully I’m not way behind the curve on this one. If you’ve all read it before, go read it again, I guess. I plan to.
I am HIGHLY recommending it to ALL. Here’s my top ten reasons why:
10. Jacobs set himself a big giant goal–reading the entire Encyclopaedia Brittanica–and he accomplished that goal. He actually did it. This is his “book report” of that experience, as it were. I cannot remember the last time I had a goal that I then accomplished. I can’t even think of the last time I finished anything besides books. (reading them not writing them). I have unfinished paintings actually hanging on my walls. I have half written screenplays cluttering my computer’s bulging memory. I have cookbooks I’ve never opened and packets of seeds just waiting to be planted. You get the idea. Jacobs did it. Everyone thought he was crazy–he started to feel a little crazy and sometimes felt like his eyes were going to start bleeding, but he did it…he made it to Z.
9. Jacob’s book is also in alphabetical order–just like the Encyclopedia. So though it reads more like an hilarious memoir, you can in fact pick it up at any time, flip directly to the D’s to find out that Descartes had a fetish for cross-eyed women. Or straight to the A’s to read your daughter the section about abalones having 5 assholes. Yes, they have 5 holes for waste removal, and I knew that she would really enjoy knowing that fact about mollusk’s buttholes cause that’s just the kind-of caring parent I am.
8. A.J.Jacobs is a funny guy in that endearing and my most favorite way–super self deprecating. So even though he’s obviously pretty smart and he has lots of smart friends and relatives, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is brutally honest with his readers–acknowledging that his quest has made him somewhat anti-social and not the greatest dinner companion. He enters crossword tournaments, interviews Alex Trebek, attends Mensa meetings, and even competes on Who Wants to be a Millionaire–in an effort to see if he is, in fact, getting smarter. There are countless laugh out loud moments. At one point he visits his old prep school in New York–attending classes and trying to contribute. He even competes in a debate at Columbia. He doesn’t even try to sugarcoat how his quirky soundbites of information don’t seem to be translating into useful intelligence in either of these situations.
7. Jacobs is fixated on the more prurient stuff in the vast volumes of the Brittanica. He likes the morbid stuff, the insane guys, and the grossest and strangest animals…so that’s the stuff–for the most part–that he shares with the reader. Cortes had syphilis. Baculum is the official name for the penis bone. Berserkers were savage Norse soldiers who went screaming into battle naked. Jewish women after menstruating are not allowed to touch pickles. Dalmation dogs and humans have strangely similar urine. The men of the Cobeua tribe of Brazil dance around with large artificial phalli, doing violent coitus motions accompanied by loud groans to spread fertility to every corner of the house. These fun facts and more can be found liberally sprinkled throughout the perhaps more grave entries about war, revolutions, famine etc.
6. Jacobs is able to artfully and seamlessly weave in hilarious and touching anecdotes about his childhood, his family–especially his dad, his friends, and all his obsessions and compulsions. He has pretty severe germaphobia / hypochondria and at one point as a child was obsessed with the idea that he was going to be poisoned by the carbon dioxide in the air if he wasn’t careful to get enough oxygen at all times. He also went through a period of time when he was convinced that he was the Smartest Boy in the World, so he was in a constant state of worry about protecting his brain–concerned that his skull itself wouldn’t do the trick. When Jacobs reads about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s own compulsion of “writing the number 64 compulsively on scraps of paper,” he realizes that a.)you can write a great classic like The Scarlet Letter and be kind-of a screwed up guy and that b.) as someone who can only turn off the radio if the last word he hears is a noun–he knows he’s in pretty good company. Having plenty of my own little tics and obsessions/compulsions, I like knowing that Jacobs and lots of other historical figures can join me in the crazy club.
5. The only consistent narrative line in the story is the true story of Jacobs and his wife, Julie’s, attempts to get pregnant. Somehow, without being in any way sentimental or smarmy, Jacobs draws us in to this difficult time in their lives, in their marriage–as they visit doctors, suffer miscarriages, or just get another negative EPT. He never makes light of the subject in any way, but doesn’t clobber the reader over the head with it either. He weaves in enough about Julie and enough about his obvious adoration of her, that the reader feels drawn in to their own quest–one that is obviously more important than the “information Everest” he has chosen to scale–but one that just happens to be going on at the same time.
4. One of the reasons Jacobs endeavors this quest is to stave off the decline of his recalled knowledge. He finds himself saying (or thinking): Gee, I used to know that– a lot, and he’s hoping to fill his brain back up again. He waffles on this one though because maybe there is only “so much space in one’s attic” and filling up one’s brain with goofy, mildly annoying stuff about dalmation urine might then mean you have less space for the important stuff. He’s been working at Entertainment Weekly long enough to be worried that knowing Britney Spears’ latest boyfriend’s name might mean he’s forgotten why we entered World War I. I worry about this kind-of stuff a lot. Not enough to try to read the Encyclopedia, but I’m glad he did it, because I learned some stuff.
3. Jacobs does a great job of finding connections not only within the EB itself but across time–and finding bridges between obscure historical events and things that are happening right now. And for some reason, that is a calming and comforting thing–things being connected–rhyme and reason and so forth–like maybe there is some grand plan behind all the madness and mayhem?
2. Jacobs explores the difference between intelligence, wisdom, knowledge, book smarts, street smarts etc. This is an interesting tangent to his quest and something that has always fascinated me. One of my nephews is super bright–born that way, as Lady Gaga would say. He taught himself to read when he was like 3 and then a couple years later put together the Death Star in lego which is basically the pinnacle of excellence in lego-land or so they tell me–something like 200 pages of instructions…like 5 billion pieces. On the other hand, I think I’m relatively smart but a lot of that is book smart and I get the difference. And sometimes, like when I’m inflating an aero-bed, it’s just a question of being too stubborn and/or lazy to read the directions.
1. He comes away with some pretty life affirming ideas, thoughts and conclusions not the least of which is: this too shall pass. :)